The UFC heads back to Australia on Saturday night, this time to Perth, a port that was tailor-made as the place where the UFC’s first Aussie champion, Robert Whittaker, could begin his reign. I say was because Whittaker was forced to withdraw from his middleweight title fight against Luke Rockhold a month ago with — and I’m not making this up — an infected abscess on his ass that led to chickenpox and other serious complications, thus once again forcing a rearrangement on a major card.
There’s a reason that “UFC” has come to stand for Unlimited Fight Cancellations over the last couple of years. With complications arising from weight cutting, USADA testing, hard sparring, and occasional visa issues, it’s rare that a card plays out exactly as it’s drawn up. This one stung a bit more because the whole event was designed around the hometown coronation of “Bobby Knuckles.” Fortunately for the UFC, there was a solid back-up plan in the form of a beastly Cuban known as Yoel Romero. Unfortunately, that means that the champ is sidelined — again.
Let’s get right into it and pre-score the action for UFC 221.
Round 1: The Detour to Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero
The middleweight division has been out of whack since mid-2016, when Michael Bisping stepped in for the injured Chris Weidman at UFC 199 on short notice to face then-champion Luke Rockhold. The over-the-hill Bisping was supposed to be a recognizable warm body for Rockhold to lay some fresh dents into, but instead the Count knocked Rockhold out and — whoosh — off the title went on a Faustian joyride.
While actual contenders like Weidman, Romero, and Rockhold were left to grumble in the media, Bisping successfully defended the hijacked title in a legends (re)match against a 46-year-old Dan Henderson, and then — a full 13 months later — lost the belt against the former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, returning to the cage after a four-year layoff. Because the GSP-Bisping fight took so long to materialize, the UFC created an interim title fight between Romero and Whittaker at UFC 213, which Whittaker won via unanimous decision. So when St-Pierre took Bisping’s title at UFC 217 four months later, in November, that obviously meant a middleweight unification bout between GSP and Whittaker, right?
Come on, man! Nothing is that simple in the UFC.
St-Pierre said he would defend the middleweight belt, but he held the title for only 33 days before he vacated it in December, stating that he preferred a return to 170 pounds (if he comes back at all). That meant Whittaker was promoted to undisputed middleweight champion, setting the stage for a confrontation with the original victim in all of this, Rockhold. That it was happening in Perth was gravy; the division — after myriad distractions and daydreams — was about to get moving again with all the legitimate contenders, and Whittaker, who was born in New Zealand and fights out of Sydney, could kick that off in his backyard.
Then Whittaker got that infected bum.
Romero was inserted to stand in against Rockhold to fight for — wait for it — the interim title. It’s like that scene in A Stranger Calls when the babysitter is informed that the calls are coming from inside the house. It’s horror and comedy playing rock-paper-scissors.
So here’s the way you look at UFC 221’s main event between Romero and Rockhold: Think of it like none of the above happened. Like we’re right back where we left off in mid-2016, back when Rockhold was still dating Demi Lovato and getting ready to fight for the title. Like that Cuban slab of clay Romero is coming in to take it from him. Like Whittaker is (hopefully) waiting in the wings for the winner, and the division is a meritocracy, full of top-flight killers.
Despite the melodrama, the good news is that it’s an awesome fight. Rockhold may have an action figure name, but he is just as unsung — and ultimately as dangerous — as his longtime American Kickboxing Academy training partner Daniel Cormier. He’s lost only twice in the last decade, one of those in the short-notice fight with Bisping (and the other against the TRT-era Vitor Belfort). Each of his victories in the UFC has come via finish, including a submission of Bisping in the first fight. He is an unnervingly poised presence in the octagon, who can do it standing, on the ground, in scrambles, wherever. It’s not a stretch to believe he’s the best middleweight on the roster.
And he’s facing a crusher who began his UFC career 8–0, with six wins coming via KO/TKO. Romero has taken out a who’s who in the division. This fight is arguably better than Whittaker-Rockhold, even if it’s geographically misbegotten — and not for the (real) title.
Round 2: Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes
Heavyweight fights are nearly always a game of “whoever lands first” roulette, but they get especially that way when the “Super Samoan” Mark Hunt fights in Australia. Since coming to the UFC from the Japanese theaters of Pride and Dream in 2010, Hunt has fought Down Under six times. Four of them — against Chris Tuchscherer, Antonio Silva, Frank Mir, and Derrick Lewis — ended in ridiculous knockouts in his favor. His 2015 encounter with current heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic in Adelaide ended with him needing the smelling salts. The outlier was his 2013 first clash with “Bigfoot” Silva, in which both men slammed away at each other for five rounds and neither would go down. It ended in a poetic draw, and was considered a Fight of the Decade candidate (even if it did take on a stench after Silva popped for elevated testosterone).
This time he’s fighting Curtis Blaydes, who is 17 years younger yet can’t hit nearly as hard. Blaydes is quietly creeping up the ranks in the heavyweight division, having won essentially four straight fights — his TKO victory over Adam Milstead was later ruled a “no contest” when the evil agent marijuana showed up in the drug screenings — against some pretty big thumpers. His last one, against Alexey Oleynik at UFC 217, was a pretty eye-opening affair that signaled his arrival. So far his only loss came against Francis Ngannou nearly two years ago, and he made Ngannou earn it.
It’s a safe bet that somebody is going to get knocked out Saturday.
For the fans in Australia who’ve adopted the New Zealander Hunt as their own, the hope is that it’s the American interloper Blaydes. For the UFC, however, you have to wonder whether it’s just the opposite. The 43-year-old Hunt has had his share of problems with the promotion — and still has an active lawsuit against them stemming from his UFC 200 fight with Brock Lesnar — which gives him a kind of “handle with care” label.
The 26-year-old Blaydes doesn’t handle anybody with care, and the UFC booked this fight well aware of the fact.
Round 3: The Return of the Former Warilla Gorilla
Three words: former rugby player. Once upon a time, Alexander Volkanovski was a 210-pound self-proclaimed “bull” who played for the Warilla Gorillas, a professional club in Lake Illawarra on the South Coast of Australia. These days he’s a fighter competing in the UFC’s featherweight division. That means he’s dropped 65 pounds — the equivalent of one full German shepherd — to punch people in the face professionally.
Volkanovski has been out of the gate fast in his second profession. He’s 16–1 since turning pro in 2012, and 3–0 in the UFC. His most impressive victory was in his debut against Yusuke Kasuya, whom he blasted with an explosive barrage of punches to score a TKO. The man he’s facing in Perth, Jeremy Kennedy, is undefeated in his pro MMA career and also 3–0 in the UFC.
Kennedy likes to dictate his will in the cage for the full allotment of three rounds, and so does Volkanovski. This has the makings of a unique power struggle, but — as always in an existential dictation of wills — the drama is in finding out which one of them will be made to budge.
Round 4: The Hardest-Hitting Heavyweight on the Card Is … Tai Tuivasa?
Mark Hunt has faced every brick-throwing gargantuan on the UFC’s heavyweight roster, and yet he says nobody punches as hard as his protégé Tai Tuivasa. The Aboriginal fighter Tuivasa is only 24 years old, and he’s fought just six times thus far in his young MMA career. Yet each of those — including his UFC debut against Rashad Coulter back in November — ended in a first-round knockout.
Part of what makes him frightening is how fast he gets the job done. He beat Gul Pohatu in 44 seconds. He beat Erik Nosa in 28. He took out poor Brandon Sosoli to win the Australian Championship Fighting heavyweight title in just 21 seconds. Coulter managed to last until late into the first round with “Bam Bam” before he caught a flying knee from hell.
This fight against the Frenchman Cyril Asker is a chance to get the needle moving not just for a new contender in the heavyweight realm, but for an Australian heavyweight to take the regional baton from Hunt. Tuivasa is the kind of fighter who you can build markets around, all over Oceania, if only he can continue pummeling the man in front of him.
In this case, Asker shall receive.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Ben Nguyen vs. Jussier Formiga — There was a time, back when the UFC opened up its flyweight division for business in 2012, that the Brazilian Formiga was considered one of the very best in the world at the weight class. He had been cruising right along with a 14–1 record before arriving in the UFC. Since then — though he’s had flashes of brilliance in wins over Dustin Ortiz and Wilson Reis — it’s been a turbulent ride. He’s gone just 6–4 with the promotion, and has never has found his way to a title shot with Demetrious Johnson. A win over Ben Nguyen would get him positioned for a late push toward that end. But in this fight he is being booked as the springboard for the 29-year-old Nguyen, an Australian transplant from South Dakota who is 4–1 in the UFC and coming off a nice victory over Tim Elliott. Nguyen is new blood in a division that needs it most.
Dong Hyun Kim vs. Demian Brown — Not to be confused with the “Stun Gun” Dong Hyun Kim in the welterweight division, this other Dong Hyun Kim is looking to make it three in a row. What’s exciting about this main event of the prelims is that his opponent, Australia’s own Damien Brown, could very well be fighting for his roster spot in his home country. Brown has lost two in a row, and is coming off a Fight of the Night performance against Frank Camacho (split-decision loss). When fighters get desperate, especially in an emotional setting, fights tend to become flammable.
Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov — After back-to-back finishes of Khalil Rountree and the Scotsman Paul Craig to begin his UFC career, Pedro raised a few eyebrows as one to watch. Even a decision loss against Ilir Latifi in his last fight doesn’t change a simple fact: The light heavyweight division needs new contenders, and Tyson carries the look of one. A victory over the Russian Safarov would be a boost, yet it’s a fight fraught with the unknown. Safarov was undefeated coming into the UFC, and lost a wild short-notice bout in his debut against Gian Villante. What will the Russian look like after a full camp? Pedro’s the one who gets to find out, and so often in the UFC that discovery process is a rude one.